4 Ways to Guide Children as They Enter the Adult Years

Chris Coursey  and Marcus Warner
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As our kids enter the adult years, they need several forms of guidance from us as parents.

1. We need to provide a rite of passage for our adult kids.[1]

The purpose of a rite of passage is to say goodbye to childhood and celebrate the beginning of life as an adult. In most cultures, this happens around age thirteen. Catholics and some Protestant denominations have confirmation. Jewish communities have bar and bat mitzvahs. Many Latin American countries have quinceaneras in celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday. Nearly all ancient cultures observed a rite of passage to mark the transition from child to adult for both boys and girls. In Amer-ica, this practice is not nearly as common and is likely a symptom of the overall decline in maturity in our culture. An effective rite of passage has a few key elements.

A good rite of passage requires a child to complete appropriate challenges. There needs to be a sense that childhood tasks have been mastered. There also needs to be a recognition that they are ready to face adult challenges. This looks different in different parts of the world, but it usually has something to do with proving that you can handle an important task related to survival as an adult.

For example, you might take your kid camping. Their challenge is to set up the camp, build the fire, cook the dinner, and supervise the outing. Obviously, in order to do this, these skills would have had to have been learned and practiced many times prior to the event. The point is to demonstrate their capacity to handle the responsibility. The rite of passage should fit the child, their interests and skills. Perhaps it is preparing a fancy dinner for a group of guests or submitting a piece of art for a contest. Whatever you decide, you want it to be meaningful and something that both showcases and stretches their skill set.

A good rite of passage requires a child to spend time with older members of the community and experience life in the adult world. Part of stepping out of the world of children into the world of adults is building relationships with adults. Using our camping analogy, other adults may go camping with you prior to the rite of passage and participate in teaching skills like identifying poison oak or berries that aren’t safe to eat. Or a child getting ready to make a profession of faith might work with an adult teacher or group leader in her church, studying the basics of the faith. The point is to teach kids how to look adults in the eyes, have meaningful conversations, and build connection through the mentoring process.

A good rite of passage requires a ceremony of celebration in which the child is welcomed into the world of adults by adults. Thus, you might invite all of the people who helped to teach your child the skills they have mastered to come on the outing. At a campfire ceremony, each one could pass on some wisdom and share some strength they recognize in your child. The participation of these adults helps to establish a new group identity for our kids that says, “I am an adult. I am strong. I am ready. I belong.” Or, on a tamer level, parents could invite adult teachers and mentors to a graduation party for their child.

2. We need to help our adult kids bond with peers and form a group identity.

Part of the brain change that hap-pens at puberty affects the identity center of the brain. In-stead of looking to parents for their sense of identity, teens begin to look at their peers to determine who they are. This isn’t just a choice they make. It is the result of new wiring in their brains. For a young adult, the key to their identity is the answer to the question “Who are my people?” Am I a jock? Am I a nerd? Am I popular? Am I an outsider? Am I part of the party crowd? Who are my people?

A good friend of mine (Marcus’s) found his identity with the party crowd during the teen years. He had just moved to a new city and didn’t know anyone. One day, he stood up to a bully at the school and immediately became a hero to all the outsiders who had felt picked on. He started getting invited to parties that centered on doing drugs and experimenting with sex. His identity came from his group. He thought of himself as a “bad boy” who didn’t care about school, just the next pleasurable experience he could find. Eventually, his life turned around. He got a girl pregnant and found himself a parent.

Clearly something had to change. The good news was that he came from a strong family who walked with him through these challenges. He also returned to his roots of faith. He had grown up in a Bible-believing family, walked away from that, but found his way back. The combination of reconnecting with his family and his faith got him on a new path that led to a new sense of who his people were and how it was like him to act. Today, he and his wife are raising their own set of joy-filled kids.

If a young adult feels like he or she doesn’t fit in anywhere, it will affect their sense of self. One of the reasons so many young adults struggle with depression is that they don’t have a healthy sense of attachment to their group.

We can’t always control the identity group our kids choose. We can help. However, we have to give our newly adult children the space and time to bond with their peers. This, of course, involves a certain amount of trust on our part. The good news is, if we have been consistent during the child years in helping our kids learn wisdom, we usually have a good attachment already established with them. Giving our young adults space doesn’t mean we abandon them to the new world they are in. Our goal is to stay relationally available so we can answer the door when they knock.

3. We need to help our adult kids connect with mentors.

At the adult stage it is very important that we as parents not be the only mentors in our kids’ lives. We want to encourage them to connect with coaches, teachers, pastors, and other adults who provide models for them to observe. Sometimes these models are good and sometimes they are not. Part of mentoring your young adult child is interacting with them about what they like and don’t like in the people they see. Helping them identify what that means about who they are and what they value becomes crucial.

At the adult stage, it is often other adults who become the dominant influence in someone’s life. As parents, we have to learn to be okay with this, but to stay relational enough to be able to interact with new ideas and observations about life.

Part of mentoring involves giving increasing responsibility for important tasks that impact the community. Both leadership and service opportunities are important for young adults to be able to grow in what it means to add value to their people. I watched this as my daughter was given not only important roles in her school plays, but significant responsibility for directing the younger students as well. After several years in drama, she began volunteering to help direct local school plays. She also became deeply involved in storytelling and writing. Eventually, she formed bonds with other adults who shared these interests. They became her people. All of this helped grow her capacity and confidence to interact in the world of adults as an adult.

4. We need to train our adult kids how to use their power for good.[2]

My kids both loved the various Spider Man movies from Marvel. In one scene, Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It is a really good line at two levels (at least). First, Uncle Ben is affirming that Peter has power. It is important for us as parents (and mentors to others) to empower our adult kids and help them see and understand various ways in which they are powerful. It can be powerful to be a friend to someone else. It can be powerful to recognize a need and meet it with empathy. It can be powerful to write well. It can be powerful to strategize creatively. It can be powerful to excel in sports. One of the key questions our adult kids need to get answered by us is this: “Do you think I am powerful? If so, how?”

Second, Uncle Ben’s words point us to the goal of using power for good. In this sense, we want to guide our adult children to make an imprint on the world for good and not just to live for their own pleasure. We want to dream with them and evaluate options with them in ways that help them understand both that there are things about them that are powerful and that they need to first protect others from that power, and second, use that power to make a difference in the world—not just for their own personal gain.

One of the key elements of using power for good is protecting others from our power. Adults have to learn when enough is enough. By this time, we learn to recognize when others need a break, when they have boundaries we need to respect, and when we are overwhelming them. These skills are strengthened in the adult stage as we practice with our peers. People who do not learn how to protect others from themselves become predatory. They learn to see life as all about winning and losing, rather than relational strength. In reality, these people are not so much “becoming” predatory as they are failing to learn the skills to curb their predatory nature.

All babies are born “predators.”[3] That may sound strange, but essentially it means that they see the world as something to consume. Everything is potential food. This, of course, ensures their survival, but part of maturing is learning that not everything is out there for our pleasure and consumption. Learning to work for what is satisfying, wait for what is good, and help others experience what is good are maturity skills that curb predatory behavior. Those who don’t mature and don’t learn such skills become dangerous to themselves and others. One of the benefits of raising mature, joy-filled kids is that they tend to be less predatory—and that is good for everyone. With these factors in mind, let’s turn our attention to the four habits of raising joy-filled kids and explore how they apply at the adult stage of life.

[1] Learn more about a rite of passage with E. James Wilder, Just Be-tween Father and Son: A Weekend Adventure Prepares a Boy for Adolescence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990).

[2]  E. James Wilder, The Complete Guide to Living with Men (Pasadena, CA: Shepherd’s House, Inc., 2004), 101-14.

[3] Learn more with E. James Wilder, Ed Khouri, Chris. M. Coursey, Shelia D. Sutton, Joy Starts Here: The Transformation Zone (East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House, Inc., 2013).

For Further Reading:

The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids

by Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey

Is “Joy-Building” the secret to raising mature healthy kids? Joy-filled kids aren’t always happy kids, but they do know how...

book cover for The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids